Lijo Jose Pellissery is known for his unconventional, out-of-the-box filmmaking. There is diversity in his works; Churuli, Jallikkattu, Angamaly Diaries among others will give you an idea of his cinema. His worlds are metaphorical and magical; they speak to the world at large.
Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (An Afternoon Nap) directed by Pellissery and written by S. Hareesh starts with small, textual insights about Malayalam and Tamil. They highlight that Malayalam is derived from Tamil, while both maintain the title of being classical languages of India. One is the mother, while the other is the child.
We are then introduced to Ashokan, who is part of a larger group, returning from their trip to Velankanni (a place of pilgrimage). He is in a hurry. After some time, all the families have gathered in their bus except that of James, the head of the group. James, played by Mammootty, scoffs and scowls at the group in his little hotel room with his wife and son. He complains and even worries that the expenses for the trip may have gone overboard. His wife's feet are swollen from the pilgrimage, and despite all the scoffing, James takes time to apply some balm on her legs.
As he pays the bill, he reads a Tamil phrase from the Tirukkural, a classical Tamil text, considered to be one of the greatest works to be written on ethics and morality, but failts to grasp the meaning (much like the audience). The Tamil receptionist helps out: To sleep is to die, and to wake is to be reborn.
What follows is a cross-section of James, in many ways symbolic of the modern-day Malayali. He despises Tamil food and complains of their tea having too much sugar. He refuses to have their traditional lunch, while the rest of the group indulges themselves in Tamil cuisine. There is an acute pretentiousness in his demeanour, one that reflects his how he sees himself as more modern and evolved when compared to the archaic Tamil.
The group resumes their journey, after some pit stops. As the sun continues to soar through the day, they eventually descend into a deep nap. This is characteristic of Malayalis, who often indulge in a sweet afternoon nap after a hearty meal. James, much like the others, disappears into this nap.
To sleep is to die, and to wake is to be reborn.
James awakes abruptly from his nap and asks the driver to stop the bus in the middle of nowhere. He walks through the fields that surround him. He has a destination in mind. He knows where to turn, what to expect and where to go, when he reaches the village. The village is a little time capsule, with women pasting cow dung patties on the wall. There is an embrace of the older days, and his modernity is fading.
Sundaram reaches his home, undresses and carefully dons the attire of the person he has now become. A blind, older woman watches television; a younger woman Poovally stays awake in bed. There is a sadness to this household that Sundaram does not understand, but that does not stop him. He gets to doing the daily chores as if this foreign house is his own; the blind woman, his mother and Poovally, his wife.
The scenes that follow are a little comical and dramatic; with Sundaram appearing and disappearing in different spaces as the group that came with James follows him, relentlessly. They think that he may have come down with an illness or this might be a reaction to undue stress. Sundaram, previously James, even interacts with his wife and son but is unable to recognise them.
This dramatic tone stays till the very end of the film. The blind mother drowns herself in Tamil classics, complemented by exaggerated emotions and melodramatic music. But this abundance of emotion sets the tone of the world Sundrama now resides in.
Sundaram is a contrast to everything that James is, and chooses to be. He insists on more sugar in his tea and is a vivacious storyteller. He has so much to say about his world and its people. There is confusion in the air, as even the people from this village are unable to recognise this person. They feel they know him, but not entirely. He walks and talks like someone they knew, but he does not resemble them. He is not one of them, but this is not something that they can say with utmost certainty.
The diasporic experience of the Malayali is something that needs no introduction. A fair share of Malayali people make up the diaspora community, having left their motherland at young ages.There is a disconnection that they feel, an alienation when they return that leaves them homeless; neither here nor there (Salim Ahamed’s Pathemari is a beautiful take on the same, also starring Mammooty).
Pellissery, with the wonderful scripting of S. Hareesh, explores this alienation and consequent isolation of the Malayali people in another format, developing it as something more intrinsic to their identity. As the group eventually catches up with him and tries to take him home, Sundaram resists. He pushes them aside violently. "Isn’t this my home?" he asks, tearing up.
Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam demonstrates the depart of the Malayali from his roots. If Malayalam comes from Tamil, then aren’t we all the same? The Malayali group find it difficult to settle in this little Tamil village. They speak of its backwardness and lack of facilities. The modern Malayali is unable to relate to this traditional world.
On the more personal end, Sundaram has returned hoping everything would be the way he had left it. Except, his people do not recognise him. Where there was a forest, now a temple is being built. His barber has passed away, and Sundaram is unable to recognize himself when he looks in the mirror. There is a transformation, a metamorphosis that has severed the connection to his roots. The place, and people he loves and cares for, are now lost to him. As Sundaram comes to this realization, it is time for another afternoon nap. He lays down, aware that he will not wake the same. James sees a Sundaram in the field, and places that he frequented, in fragments. This dream of his is hazy, blurry; difficult to understand. Sundaram came seeking his home, but he no longer belongs there.
James opens his eyes. It is time to go home.
The Malayali group know the way out. They leave together, headed by James. This journey of oneself continues. As they seat themselves in their bus, we see that they are all members of a drama troupe. The curtain has fallen, and this drama has found its inevitable destination.